I’ve long been a fan of the label Vin Du Select Qualitite Records, the U.S. label that solely exists to release albums of acoustic guitar music. Over the years, that has included work by veteran players like Alan Licht and Thurston Moore as well as new names to the game such as Sarah Louise and Matthew Mullane.
From their most recent batch of releases, the one that haunted me the deepest and kept me flipping the vinyl over again and again was the collection recorded by Icelandic artist Kristin Thora Haraldsdottir.
In part, I’ll admit, it was because it dared to avoid any connection to the American Primitive style of playing that dominates much of the acoustic guitar universe. But there was a breadth and beauty to her work throughout the LP that I couldn’t shake.
With her use of field recordings and lightly brushed on effects, I found myself leaning into my speakers and headphones trying to savor every last note. I also knew I had to know more about this incredible artist and her methods. Lucky for us, she had a few moments to spare to answer some questions via email about composing for acoustic guitar, her previous work helping adapt a famed Norse poem for the stage, and her future endeavors.
You are primarily known as a viola player…can you talk about your decision to write and record an album using acoustic guitar?
I have often played around with other instruments as well, including the guitar, often to accompany my singing. Steve Lowenthal, who runs the VDSQ label, and I were living in the same house my first year studying performance and composition at CalArts and he’s the one who started pursuing me to make a record for his guitar label after coming to many of the shows I was involved in. After realizing that he was genuinely serious about this, I decided that this would be a great opportunity to put some of my music out, I already had a few song ideas and was excited about this challenge of stepping out of my comfort zone and doing just anything I wanted but with the limitations that it offered (a guitar, a laptop and field recordings).
How were the songs on this record put together? Was there a lot of overdubbing or use of guitar pedals and technology?
It was very different from one tune to another. As I said, I did have a couple of songs that I wanted to work on, but also, I just wanted to play around on the guitar. I decided early on that I do whatever the tune needed. Quite a few tunes came through free improvisation on the instrument followed by some refinements and added composition. Some of those ended up just as they were, or with some slight effect to enhance the feel I was looking for, like on “Dropped.” On a couple of tunes I overdubbed a melody and “Current” is a play with polyrhythms, which required lots of overdubs. At one point early on, I wanted to create a soundscape of long sustained tones and harmonies, like I often do with the viola, so I experimented with extreme time stretching on the computer and found that this created an amazing, strange sound, somewhat reminiscent of a hurdy gurdy. This ended up being the body of the first tune on the record, “Night.”
Your album also uses a great deal of field recordings. What do you listen for when you’re making field recordings like that?
It often just starts with me hearing or sensing something that I want to capture and I press record. The great thing about this is that the recording process itself will become a sonic meditation for me, I will just sit and listen to everything that I hear while recording. On this album, I was basically using the field recordings like another instrument. There were atmospheres or moods related to the sounds or soundscapes, that I wanted to capture and bring forth and they became an essential ingredient in the tune.
In the notes for the album you mention that many of these songs were “gestating for years.” Is that fairly typical of the way you work – does it take a long time for you to finish a song?
Not really, very often a song comes to me in the spur of the moment, through improvisation, and feels ready just like that. I am also by far the most productive when I’m working on a hard deadline. What I was saying there was, that I had written many of the tunes years ago and started recording some of them, but didn’t finish the record that year due to circumstances. Then, several projects and a few years later, when I got back to the recording process, they had been gestating somewhere in my head and just needed the final touch before coming to life on a recording.
How do you know when something is finished? When are you finally comfortable with releasing your work?
I just decide, this is it. Often there is a deadline, and that really helps! I just have to give it a final push and decide that it’s finished.
The info on the album also says that some of the album was recorded in Akueryi. Is that a place where you live or just a place you like to visit? What can you tell us about that town?
It’s a town in north Iceland where I partly grew up and my parents still live there, so sometimes I visit them and this one time I recorded some things for the record there.
I wanted to ask about a few other things you have worked on, including the adaptation of Bloodhoof that was recently performed at the Reykjavik Arts Festival. How did you get involved with this project and how did you approach writing the music for something like this?
The women from Umbra ensemble contacted me and commissioned a piece of music to the poetry work Blóðhófnir (in English: Bloodhoof) by Gerður Kristný. The poem is a reevaluation of an Old Norse poem from the Edda, in which the giantess, Gerður, is abducted and forced to marry the god Freyr. This contemporary retelling is from Gerður’s perspective, a very powerful, beautiful and tragic work, that I was already familiar with and fond of.
Long before I started writing any music to it, I would read the work through many times, fast and slow and just go into the story and feel it. Soon I realized that this should become a larger work, because the content is so rich, but very sparsely written, with just a few words on each page. I set out to create an hour long work that would be staged by choreographer, Saga Sigurðardóttir. The Umbra ensemble mostly performs ancient music (medieval, folk, etc.) on period instruments and sing. This, I found very fitting to the poetry, which is told by a woman with a very strong connection to nature, so that guided me from the start; some of the vocal parts are loosely inspired by medieval chanting, the strings and harmonium have a very “earthy” sound, which I. But mostly, the words and the story guided me, and the music came through improvisation. Each working session, I would pick a passage from the poetry and stay with it until the music came to me. Sometimes this would be in the form of a melodic line or chord progression.
One of your pieces “Touch” has been getting performed around the world. Is it an easy thing to hand off one of your pieces and let someone else perform it?
I have had such a privilege of writing for people that I trust to understand what I want the piece to convey, so I would say that at first, knowing who would perform it made it easier to hand a piece off. I strive to be very specific in my instructions when I write and usually it works very well. Most of the time I’ve been able to meet with the musicians before a performance, so that I can be of further guidance if needed, and this I really like, also just to be connected with the people. “Touch” was the first piece that I wrote for women I had never met before and that makes it even more rewarding that the trio (XelmYa) took it so beautifully under their wing so that now it is living its own life out in the world with amazing performers that love it and nurture.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now and for the future?
I’m working on a piece for solo baroque violin and another piece for Orchestra to be performed early next year. I just had a release show for the VDSQ record in Reykjavík and performed in NYC last month. So now that I have a performance set, I’m looking into performing this music more. I love playing with others, so I have a group of amazing musicians who sometimes perform my music with me and a couple of the tunes from the record we perform with vocals on shows. I am also reconnecting with my viola and very excited to do more work with her, recording and performing.